The writer-producer has occupied a rarefied place in the world of the venerable science fiction property for nearly a decade. After having a hand in some of the most high-profile film franchise launches and sequels -- including "Transformers," "Mission: Impossible III," and "The Legend of Zorro" –- he and then-writing partner Roberto Orci were tapped by their friend and collaborator J.J. Abrams to help reboot the aging "Trek" franchise. They turned the clock back to recast the classic characters of the original series and, with some time-travel tools, reset the timeline; they opened up the canon to an entirely new open-ended mythology.
Orci was the avowed Trekkie, and Kurtzman was the far more casual fan who, in the process of reshuffling the deck for Kirk, Spock, McCoy and their crewmates over the course of two films, developed a deep and abiding affection for the "Trek" franchise.
So when "Star Trek" was slated to return to its small screen roots in the form of "Star Trek: Discovery," in an effort to attract eyeballs to and build original programming for the new streaming service CBS All Access, it was only logical for Kurtzman to take a hands-on creative role.
First arriving in support of original executive producer Bryan Fuller's vision for the series (set a decade before the adventures of Kirk's crew and in the original continuity established 50 years earlier), Kurtzman would soon assume creative stewardship of the series when Fuller left/was forced away from the series.
Now, as he stands at the helm of once of the most both buzzed-about and creatively risky series launches of the fall season, Kurtzman chats candidly with Moviefone about bringing "Trek" back to the small screen for the first time since "Star Trek: Enterprise" signed off in 2005.
Moviefone: You admittedly weren't the world's biggest "Star Trek" fan when you first got involved with the franchise. What do you love about it being the shepherd of it at this point?
Alex Kurtzman: I find myself in a very surprising moment that you would even call me the shepherd of it. And the truth is, I'm not. The truth is that we all are. I can say, personally, that I have fallen deeply in love with "Trek" now over the last ten years.
I love the fact that everybody comes up to me and says, "I used to watch that show with my family, my dad, with my mom, with my brother or sister," and it's meant something so deep and profound to so many people for so many generations, that your love of it becomes the inheritance of that knowledge, and then you seep yourself in the lore of it, in what canon is.
To be able to be around the debates about what canon is, which now I've been involved in for a long time, and everyone having a very different opinion about what you can and can't do, what's violation and what isn't, it's like a very warm bed. It really has been that for me. I was a moderate fan who became a real fan.
There's going to be always these debates about canon and continuity. What's the fun part of leaning into that and spelunking around the mythology for things that you can exploit further?
When we did the first movie, it was sort of profoundly strange that, in all the time and in all the iterations of "Trek," there had never been a story told about how Kirk and Spock met. It was this amazing, like, "Wait, how is that possible?"
I think what's exciting for me is, to jump back ten years pre-Enterprise, and to be opening doors to things that have existed in canon as lines of dialogue that were thrown away, or occasional off-handed references to the things that happened, suddenly become the crux of a story. And that's really exciting, to be able to take those little kernels and build them.
What lessons did you learn working on the films about being able to bend "Star Trek" and not break "Star Trek" that you brought to the show?
That first and foremost you have to be respectful of canon, and you have to have an active debate about what breaks canon and where the violations occur. As long as you're doing that, and making conscious choices knowing certain choices will be really questions -- for example, when we were doing the first movie, we blew up Vulcan. When we first had the idea to blow up Vulcan, everyone, all of us, we were sort of like, "Man, we can't do that. Can we really do that?"
Then we had to pitch the idea to the late, great Leonard Nimoy. "Hey, guess what? You're responsible for blowing up Vulcan. What do you think?" Ultimately, in a weird way, having his blessing meant that he understood that we were coming to a decision like that from the most reverential place. That it was coming from a place of story necessity, that was respecting and honoring canon.
So that, for me, was one of the biggest lessons that I learned from making the films. You have to push the boundaries, but you can't push it without listening to the fans.
The idea to make your lead character, Michael Burnham, related in some way to Spock's father, Sarek, is a big swing. Tell me about getting there and deciding, "Yes, that's a move we want to make."
Sarek is obviously a character that we've written before in the films. The idea that if you look at canon and you say, "Wait a minute -- Spock has never mentioned a half-sister." That in and of itself is a fascinating dramatic question: Why? That's a whole story now. The idea of getting to tell that part of the story with Sarek, who also has never mentioned that character, it opens new and fertile ground for the character that we haven't explored yet.
For other pre-established characters like Harry Mudd, give me a sense of your approach to them and how you wanted to make them your own to a degree, but also be faithful to what came before.
Harry Mudd is obviously a fan favorite. Casting Rainn [Wilson], there was such a safety net just knowing it was going to be Rainn. His comedic timing is brilliant, but Harry was actually motivated by personal things. So there's a real character reason for why he does what he does. I think fans are going to recognize that we have tipped our hat to it in every way. But also, we brought something new, because Rainn is now playing him.
As far as this point in continuity, I'm wondering if this is the right analogy: if Kirk's Enterprise is a Kennedy Camelot era analogy, is "Discovery" analogous to the postwar era leading to that?
Yeah, I think [producer] Akiva [Goldsman] said it really well: With certain things like the Prime Directive, let's not assume that the Prime Directive exists and that Starfleet is following that rule yet. That, to me, alone is really interesting. How do they get there? How did that come to be? What events took place that forced them to come up with a prime directive? That's a great dramatic question.
So the idea is that, by the time Kirk is governing the ship, ten years have gone by, and certain rules have been established. But the beauty of going ten years back in time is that a lot of those things haven't been established yet. So characters are going to have to forge what Enterprise inherits.
I'm sure in the first season you've got to set your own ground rules, and get the show up running. But there are also so many great actors that have been involved in "Star Trek" that are still with us, still young. Do you want to actually use some of those actors in their iconic roles, if you can find a sci-fi way of making it work in the story?
I think we're kind of open to anything, as long as it doesn't feel like we'd be making such a weird jump in terms of age or time. So yeah, I'd be open to it if it felt right.
"Discovery" premieres first on CBS Sept. 24, and subsequent episodes can only be watched via subscribing to CBS All Access.